Smithsonian's Museum of African American History and Culture Acquires Jet and Ebony Archive

The archive of Ebony and Jet magazines, containing more than 4 million photographs, will be distributed among a number of cultural institutions, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute.

Johnson Publishing’s historic archive was purchased by the Ford Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and The J. Paul Getty Trust for $30 million. The purchase is pending court approval because it was part of the auction of Johnson Publishing’s assets after the company filed for bankruptcy, according to The Washington Post.

James Cuno, president of The J. Paul Getty Trust, said the archive was the greatest “repository of the history of the modern African American experience” “Saving it and making it available to the public is a great honor and a grave responsibility,” Cuno said in a statement.

The foundations agreed to donate the archives to the Smithsonian and the Getty Research Institute “to ensure the broadest access for the general public and use by scholars, researchers, journalists, and other interested parties.”

“This iconic and unique collection will stand the test of time, documenting an essential part of American history over an extraordinary period,” MacArthur Foundation President Julia Stasch said in a statement. “We are pleased to collaborate to acquire the archive and to preserve it for the benefit of scholars, the public, and future generations forever.”

Spencer Crew, the acting director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said it was an honor to be invited to join the Getty Research Institute and others to “safeguard and share” the photo archive.

“We applaud the generosity of the consortium of foundations that made this acquisition possible,” Crew said in a statement. “And we pay homage to the vision of John H. Johnson and his commitment to bringing to the nation and the world, the story of the African American experience — in all its complexity and all its richness. Ebony and Jet were the only places where African Americans could see themselves. They were the visual record of our beauty, humanity, dignity, grace, and our accomplishments.”

Crew said that the museum had “an extraordinary responsibility” to be the steward of the archive.

“With the depth of its curatorial expertise and the technical skills in digitization, the Museum stands ready to marshal its forces to make this archive accessible to the widest possible audience. We are honored to work with our recipient colleagues to make this gift to the nation possible,” he added.

According to The Washington Post, Johnson Publishing was one of the founding donors to the Museum of African American History and Culture. The Smithsonian museum opened on the Mall in Washington, DC in 2016.

Johnson Publishing, which founded Ebony and Jet magazines, announced it was filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April. The publishing company said it filed for bankruptcy after failing to restructure, obtain alternative financing, or sell the company.

“This decision was not easy, not should it have been,” the company said in a statement at the time. “Johnson Publishing Company is an iconic part of American and African American history since our founding in 1942, and the company’s impact on society cannot be overstated.” The company sold its iconic magazines in 2016.

Weeks after Johnson Publishing filed for bankruptcy, entrepreneur Melody Hobson attempted to foreclose on the photo and recording archives of Ebony and Jet magazines. The highly coveted archive was used as collateral on a $12 million loan Johnson Publishing took out with Capital Holdings V, where Hobson is a high-level executive with her husband, filmmaker George Lucas.

In 2014, the archive was appraised for at least $40 million. It contains iconic photographs of African American leaders and artists, including Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, and Aretha Franklin. Images of Emmett Till lying in his coffin and Coretta Scott King mourning the loss of her husband Martin Luther King Jr. are also included.

Johnson Publishing launched in 1942 when founder John H. Johnson used a $500 loan borrowed against his mother’s furniture shop. Ebony began publishing in 1945 and Jet, now an online-only publication, followed six years later. The iconic magazines, which initially steered clear of politics, led the charge in covering the murder of Emmett Till. In the 1990s, circulation for the magazines began to drop as other publications began reporting on Black culture.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.